Democracy is a system of government in which the power to make important political decisions rests ultimately with the people. To use a famous phrase, democracy is "government of the people, by the people, for the people". Democracy is opposed to forms of dictatorship or totalitarianism, in which the power resides in a self-appointed elite.
Democracies can be divided into different types, based on a number of different distinctions. The most important distinction is between direct democracy (sometimes also called "pure democracy"), in which the people express their will by means of a direct vote on each particular issue, and representative democracy (sometimes called "indirect democracy"), in which the people express their will through the election of representatives that make decisions on behalf of those who elected them.
Other important issues in democracy include exactly who are "the People", i.e. who ought to be entitled to vote; how to protect the rights of minorities from the "tyranny of the majority"; and which system should be used for the election of representatives or other officials.
Alternative Definition of 'Democracy'
There is another definition of democracy from that given above, though it is less commonly used. According to this definition, the word "democracy" refers solely to direct democracy, whilst a representative democracy is referred to as a "republic". Using this definition, the United States' system of government is referred to as a "democratic-republic," rather than a democracy.
The earliest origins of this definition can be found in the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle distinguished in his Politics between six systems of government, depending on whether rule was by the one, the few or the many, and whether this rule was just or unjust. He called an unjust system of rule by the many demokratia (democracy), and a just system of rule by the many a politeia, most commonly translated republic (from the Latin res publica, 'public thing'). Aristotle's demokratia was closer to what today we would call direct democracy, and politeia closer to what we could a representative democracy, though even a demokratia still had elected offices. A particularly interesting feature of Aristotle's demokratia is the choosing of public officials by lot, a technique common among Greek city-states, though not endorsed by Aristotle and mostly unknown in any modern political system. (Although in some countries with first past the post election systems, in the highly unlikely case of two candidates for a seat receiving exactly the same number of votes, the seat is decided by flipping a coin.)
The words "democracy" and "republic" were used in a similar way to Aristotle by some of the Founding Fathers of the United States. They argued that only a representative democracy (what they called a 'republic') could properly protect the rights of the individual; they used the word 'democracy' to refer to direct democracy, which they considered tyrannical.
Neither Aristotle's definition nor that of the American Founding Fathers is widely used anymore -- most political scientists today (and most common English speakers) use the term "democracy" to refer to government by the people, whether it be direct or representative. The term "republic" most commonly means today a politicial system with a head of state elected for a limited term, as opposed to a constitutional monarchy.
Note however that the older terms are still sometimes used in discussions of politicial theory, especially when considering the works of Aristotle or the American "Founding Fathers". This older terminology also has some popularity in conservative and Libertarian politics in the United States.
Within this article, the definition of democracy given at the beginning of this article (i.e. democracy includes both direct and indirect democracy) will be used.
Direct and Representative Democracy
Direct democracy refers to a system in which citizens directly decide each issue by voting. In representative democracy, by contrast, citizens elect representatives at regular intervals, who then in turn decide the issues on their behalf.
Direct democracy becomes more and more difficult, and necessarily more closely approximates representative democracy, as the number of citizens grows. Historically, the most direct democracies would include the New England town meeting (within the United States), and the political system of ancient Athens. Neither system would scale well to a larger population. (Though the population of Athens was reasonably large, most of that population were not citizens, and thus had no political rights.)
It is questionable whether there has ever been a purely direct democracy of any considerable size (but see No true scotsman fallacy). In practice, societies of any complexity always must contain a specialisation of tasks, including administrative tasks; and hence even in a direct democracy there must be some elected officials. (Though one can still attempt to have all important policy decisions made by a direct vote, with the officials restricted to merely to implementing them.)
Likewise, many modern representative democracies incorporate some elements of direct democracy, most commonly referenda.
We can view direct and indirect democracies as ideal types, with real democracies approximating closest to one or the other. Some modern political entities are closest to direct democracies, such as Switzerland or some American states, where frequent use is made of referenda, and means are provided for referenda to be initiated by petition (called referenda on popular demand) instead of by members of the legislature or the government. The latter form, which is often refered to as a plebiscite, allows the government to choose if and when to hold a referendum, and also how the question should be worded. By contrast, Germany is much closer to an ideal representative democracy: in Germany referenda are prohibited, due in part to the memory of how Adolf Hitler used to manipulate plebiscites to support his rule.
The system of elections that was used in some Communist countries might be considered an extreme form of representative democracy, in which the people directly elected local representatives, who in turn elected regional representatives, who in turn elected the national assembly, who finally elected the rulers of the country. However, such systems were not in practice democratic at all, even though the people are permitted to vote, since the large distance between the individual voter and the government means that the system is easy to manipulate to give the desired result.
Which form is superior?
Many have argued in favour of direct democracy, on the grounds that it represents the will of the people most accurately; these people argue that by contrast representative democracy best represents the will of those privileged enough to be able to mount a successful election campaign.
The traditional, and to many still compelling, objection to direct democracy as a form of government is that it is open to demagoguery. It is for this reason that the United States was established as, in the terminology used at the time (see above), a "republic" rather than a "democracy". Thus Benjamin Franklin's famous answer, to the question as to what sort of government the "Founding Fathers" had established, was: "A Republic, if you can keep it."
Is Democracy a good thing?
Almost all states today support democracy in principle, though often not in practice. Even many communist dictatorships call themselves democracies (e.g. the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam", "Democratic People's Republic of Korea"), even though they are by no means democratic by most Westerners' definition of the term.
Some ideologies have been openly opposed to democracy, for example Fascism.
Communists have argued that democracies are not really democratic, but are in fact smokescreen for the ruling classes, who exercise the real power. In the Communist analysis, the working class in democracies does not really have a free vote, since the ruling class controls all the media and the general populace have been indoctrinated with ruling class propaganda. According to Communists, real democracy is only possible under a socialist system.
At least some arguments against democracy amount more to a complaint that the outcome of democracy is different from what the critic desired. Support for democracy may, then, sometimes not be support for the principle or theory of democracy, but rather a hopeful confidence that democracy will yield the kind of society that the supporter hopes for on independent grounds.
Right to Vote
In the past many groups have been excluded from the right to vote, on various grounds. Sometimes this exclusion is a quite open policy, clearly stated in the electoral laws; at other times it is nowhere clearly stated, but is implemented in practice by provisions that may seem to have little to do with the exclusion actually being implemented (e.g. poll taxes and literacy requirements used to keep African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights Era American South from voting.) And sometimes a group will be permitted to vote, but the electoral system or institutions of government will be purposely designed to give them less influence than other more favoured groups.
Ethnic or Racial Exclusion
Many societies in the past have denied people the right to vote on the basis of race or ethnicity. Examples of this include the exclusion of people of African descent from voting, in the pre-Civil Rights Era American South, and in apartheid-era South Africa.
Most societies today no longer maintain such provisions, but a few still do. For example, Fiji reserves a certain number of seats in its Parliament for each of its main ethnic groups; these provisions were adopted in order to discriminate against Indians in favour of ethnic Fijians.
Exclusion on grounds of Class
Up until the nineteenth century, many Western democracies had property qualifications in their electoral laws, that meant that only people with a certain degree of wealth could vote. Today these laws have largely been abolished.
Exclusion on the grounds of gender
Another long standing exclusion has been exclusion based on gender. All democracies prevented women from voting until 1893, when New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote on the same terms as men. This is due to the historical success of the female suffrage movement. Today almost all states provide women with the right to vote; the sole exceptions are seven Muslim countries, primarily in the Middle East: Bahrain, Brunei, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates.
Right to Vote Today
Today, in most democracies, the right to vote is granted without discrimination with regard to race, ethnicity, class or gender. However, the right to vote is still not universal. It is restricted to persons who have attained a certain age, most commonly 18 (although in some places it can be as high as 21). Only citizens of a country can normally vote in its elections, though some countries make exceptions for citizens of other countries they have close links to (e.g. some members of the Commonwealth, and the members of the European Union).
The right to vote is normally denied to prisoners. Some countries also deny the right to vote to those convicted of serious crimes, even after they are released from prison. In some cases (e.g. the felon disfranchisement laws found in many U.S. States) the denial of the right to vote is automatic on conviction of a serious criminal offence; in other cases (e.g. provisions found in many parts of continental Europe) the denial of the right to vote is an additional penalty that the court can choose to impose, over and above the penalty of imprisonment.
Democracies around the World
It is difficult to give exact figures as to the number of democracies in the world today. There is no clear line dividing dictatorships and democracies. Many countries (e.g. Singapore) have supposedly free elections, which the governing party has always won, often accompanied by allegations or evidence of the repression of any opposition that appeared to have a serious chance of unseating the government. Whether such countries are democracies or single party dictatorships masquerading as democracies is a matter of dispute.
There have, however, been attempts to determine the number of democracies in the world today. According to Freedom House, at the end of 2000 there were 120 democracies in the world.